Seemingly innocuous phrases in government announcements can carry more meaning than we may initially think. A case in point comes from the joint statement issued after John Key’s recent meeting in Sydney with Malcolm Turnbull. It appears in the section on Trans Tasman Security and Defence Cooperation, which begins by observing that: ‘Australia and New Zealand have a shared interest in promoting a stable, rules-based global order, and in working together to respond to regional and international security challenges.’
Nothing surprising, controversial or even noteworthy about that, you might say. But readers of the lengthy Australian Defence White Paper released just a few days ago might recognize the importance of one particular portion. Protecting the global rules based order is one of the signature tunes of the Turnbull era for Australian strategy. ‘A stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order’ is one of just three ‘defence strategic interests’ identified in the document’s central framework. Upon this interest much appears to hinge, including the corresponding strategic defence objective (again one of only three) to: ‘Contribute military capabilities to coalition operations that support Australia’s interests in a rules-based global order.’
But if you think this lets New Zealand off the hook, think again. ‘We are close partners’, an earlier paragraph of the section on New Zealand asserts, ‘and ANZUS allies.’ This seems to be no idle observation. By this the Turnbull government does not mean ANZUS in all of its former trilateral glory. Nonetheless it has been a little while since the alliance was couched in that way in depicting Australia-New Zealand defence relations.
No such ANZUS reference, for instance, appeared in either of the White Papers that appeared in the tumultuous years of recent Australian Labor Party governments. Moreover, both the Rudd White Paper of 2009 and the Gillard era counterpart of 2013, keep New Zealand in a South Pacific defence box, as if the only relevance to Australia of the bilateral relationship was in the very near neighbourhood.
This shared interest in the closer region is still emphasised in the 2016 iteration, as it should be, but there is more than a hint of a view that the two countries are also global security partners. One important paragraph in the new White Paper begins with the line that ‘Australia has the capability to make a difference in the world wherever our Strategic Defence Interests are engaged.’ It ends with the line that ‘Australia must work in partnership with our alliance partners the United States and New Zealand, friends and like-minded countries to address common threats and security challenges.’ And this is not the only time that the three old ANZUS members are listed in this fashion.
One obvious cooperative deployment has much to explain this wider emphasis: the Australia-New Zealand training task group in Iraq. But there is also a notion of the two countries sharing common views of the fight against terrorism more generally. And this commonality goes well beyond cooperation between defence forces. Last month’s joint Prime Ministerial statement, for example, promises a new ‘annual dialogue on national security between the heads of Australian and New Zealand policy, intelligence and security agencies.’ This has a strong domestic focus, but the links back to developments in the Middle East are also clear.
New Zealand clearly shares Australia’s view that ISIL and its ilk are a threat to the global rules based system that Wellington regards as important. In announcing the training commitment to Iraq, John Key said New Zealand was standing up for its own values, but a number of these values are also shared by our closest partners in this endeavour. And New Zealand’s Prime Minister said something earlier that gained rather more attention: that doing something on Iraq was the price of being part of the club. Now that Australia is presenting New Zealand as being more fully back in the western defence club, we have to ask what the new price of this membership might be.
The costs for New Zealand are unlikely to be that steep in the South Pacific or even in the Middle East. But they will be more obvious in the Asia-Pacific region, and more specifically in East Asia. Here Australia clearly sees China as the major problem and as a partner in only limited terms. ‘A stable rules-based regional order’, the White Paper argues with reference to North Asia, the South China Sea and open sea lines of communication, ‘is critical to ensuring Australia’s access to an open, free and secure trading system and minimising the risk of coercion and instability that would directly affect Australia’s interests.’ And later on, focusing clearly on the South China Sea, comes some of the most pointed criticism: ‘Australia has also called on all claimants to exercise self-restraint, take steps to ease tensions and refrain from provocative actions that could increase tension and uncertainty in the region. Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities.’
A less pointed and less China-centred take on this issue appeared in January’s Key-Turnbull statement: ‘The Prime Ministers called on all claimant states in the South China Sea to halt land reclamation, construction, and militarisation, and to take steps to ease tensions.’ But it is still clear that Australia and New Zealand have some elements of a common position on this divisive issue and are willing to say so publically. This means that the wordsmiths in MFAT and Defence will need to take even greater care to safeguard the impression that New Zealand’s security policy on China is driven from Wellington and not from Canberra, or Washington.
A bigger alliance conundrum may await. The Turnbull government’s drive for growing defence expenditure (which won’t be easy to deliver) reflects more than the long-held desire to retain a capability edge as other regional militaries grow stronger. It also reflects the judgement that Australia’s strategy rests almost entirely on keeping the United States – which in contrast to China is depicted as a champion of global rules - regionally engaged and active. To encourage Washington to do this as China’s capacities expand, Australia has to demonstrate its own commitment. This is the strategic and budgetary price for Australia of its alliance with the United States. And many of the capability choices outlined in the White Paper make sense only for Australia as a close ally and operational partner of the United States, which so often leads those military coalitions supporting the rules based order.
There may be a Trans Tasman version of this issue too. To the extent that Australia sees New Zealand as more than a South Pacific defence partner (and to the extent it knows the United States sees us this way too), what capability expectations does it have of Wellington as a more active ally? And how big a bill will that mean for Wellington if it is to continue to enjoy Canberra’s support? Watching for signs of this coming conversation in New Zealand’s 2016 Defence White Paper will be an interesting exercise.
Photo credit: Australian Department of Defence